Cover illustration for the accompanying book for the exhibition, a portrait of HenryMintox demonstrating his 'Inspiration Recorder' in 1922 (based on a photo of Thomas Edison testing an early phonograph).

The Oopsatoreum

Following on from the successful exhibition of curiosities, The Odditoreum, Sydney Powerhouse Museum Program's Producer Helen Whitty approached me with a concept for another show involving fictional histories of real (but often quite strange) objects from their archives. While the Odditoreum wandered randomly from medieval canonballs to genetrically engineered moths, Helen's idea for the Oopsatoreum involved more of an overarching narrative, with some emphasis on mechanical objects and accidents. I responded with the character of an imaginary inventor, Henry A. Mintox (pictured above): spectacularly unsuccessful and therefore largely unknown, at least until this museum 'retrospective'. Many of the actual objects, from a hearing-aids to a mechanical dog, are recast as failed innovations. In some cases being too far ahead of their time, such as an early attempt to introduce mobile text-messaging using pre-electronic technology.

Beneath the silliness of the project there is actually an important observation: all invention begins as a daring act of imagination, and beings with a play of outlandish ideas. For every success that filters into daily use, there are countless failures that are as important a testament to creative spirit.

The book will be available from October 2012 (you can order it here), for more information visit the Sydney Powerhouse Museum. The exhibition will open in 2013.

Extract from The Oopsatoreum: The Tea-Timer (1927)

Mintox loved automation almost as much as his own family, who nevertheless had to deal with the constant threat of robot counterparts. He envisaged a world in which almost every aspect of life was mechanically streamlined, from the changing of nappies to the delivery of bedtime prayers, saving precious minutes that could then be devoted to oiling and polishing each device.

One of his earliest efforts was the Automatic Teapot, essentially an augmented alarm clock designed to produce tea at precise intervals throughout the day. At the stroke of a pre-set timer, a stuck match lit a small oil burner, heating water in a kettle. This would pour into a cup at boiling temperate upon completion of its cycle, signaled by a small bell, some two hours later. Resetting the machine took another hour, which generally discouraged potential investors. A steam explosion during a public demonstration did little to sell the concept.

Other alarm clock based devices, such as the ‘dog walker’, which let out a kilometre of cord tied to a dog’s collar, allowing the animal to roam freely before winching it all the way back in thirty minutes later, did not fare any better. Why Mintox chose to invest so much time and money in these two projects, while discarding plans for other mechanically-timed devices such as a ‘dish-cleansing machine’, a ‘rotating clothes drying chamber’ and a ‘reticulated lawn hydration system’ remains a mystery.

Extract from The Oopsatoreum: The Puppy Confidant (reconstructed) (1948)

Mintox had many encounters with local police, usually as a result of neighbours reporting huge explosions emanating from his property. On each occasion, he was struck by ineffectiveness of criminal interrogations, largely because they were conducted by police officers; ‘the type of person an offender naturally distrusts.’ Even the substitution of non-police interrogators was fraught, Mintox claimed, because they were still obvious agents of the law.

People would much rather confess their crimes to a quiet, unassuming listener: a cute baby animal such as a young rabbit or kitten. While such animals proved hard to train for delicate police work, Mintox believed mechanical ones might do just as well, with the added advantage of being able to conceal complex electronic listening, speaking and recording devices.

The first prototype, the ‘bulldog puppy’, was intended to be wheeled slowly into an otherwise empty room with a lone suspect. A detective in another room would engage in a casual conversation using the puppet’s speakers (their voice made ‘artificially doglike’) in the hope of gathering vital information prior to a formal interview. Local police reluctantly gave consent, and according to Mintox’s notes, the first trial resulted in a full confession in under two minutes.

The actual police report is slightly more detailed: the bulldog puppy vibrated erratically, began smoking, let off a deafening screech and exploded soon after its eyeballs shot across the room. The recorded confession proved inadmissible in court, having been ‘acquired under extreme duress and also badly burnt.’ Testing of other interrogation devices – a mechanical duckling, guinea pig and owlet – did not proceed.

An early playbill advertising a regular Henry Mintox lecture at Burrumbuttock Town Hall in rural New South Wales.